Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, members of the Bexar County Historical Commission, and U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez commemorated a landmark 1897 federal case regarding the citizenship of Mexican immigrant Ricardo Rodríguez Tuesday. The judge who ruled in favor of Rodríguez paved the way for civil and citizenship rights of Mexican immigrants.
Attendees convened on the third floor of the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse for the dedication ceremony before heading outside for the official plaque unveiling. Wolff explained the importance of the commemoration as he opened the event, adding that he left in the middle of his Commissioner’s Court meeting, because he couldn’t miss “this historic ceremony.”
Wolff thanked the Bexar County Historical Commission for working alongside U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez to make the recognition a reality.
“(This is one) of the earliest cases that really began to understand the civil rights for people,” Wolff said, “and it was a major step forward for the judge in that era who made that decision.”
Little is known about Rodríguez – only that, at the time, he was described as a 37-year-old “copper-colored man” with “high cheekbones.” A native of Hijuelas in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Rodríguez was born circa 1857 and came to Texas around 1883. Despite the scarcity of information about Rodríguez’s life, his legacy endures.
“In 1896, Ricardo Rodríguez entered the Federal Courthouse in San Antonio and initiated his application for United States citizenship,” Judge Rodriguez said. “Today, applications for naturalization are processed by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).”
Judge Thomas Sheldon Maxey, the Confederate Army veteran in charge of Rodriguez’s case, Judge Rodriguez explained, was “quite the unlikely champion of civil rights.
“Most of us consider officiating a naturalization ceremony one of the most important and happy tasks we perform, but that day in 1896, when Ricardo Rodríguez filed his citizenship application, the task facing (Judge Maxey) was much more complicated,” Judge Rodriguez said. “It took Judge Maxey a whole year and several hearings before he issued his ruling.”
Back then, federal law regarding naturalization specified that “any alien being a free and white person” could become a citizen, Judge Rodriguez explained, but after the Civil War and during reconstruction, Congress amended the law to include “Africans and persons of African descent.” However, no other “whites” would be granted citizenship.
“In federal cases prior to Rodríguez’s, federal courts had concluded that Chinese immigrants were not white and that persons half white and half American Indian were not white,” Judge Rodriguez said. “Those applications for citizenship were denied.”
During his court proceedings, Rodríguez submitted affidavits attesting to his length of residency and good character. For the purpose of the naturalization statute, the legal question facing Judge Maxey was whether the man in question was white or not.
This “disgraceful racial analysis” was further complicated by two lawyers, A.J. Evans and T.J. McMinn, who opposed Rodríguez’s naturalization application on the basis of his Mexican ancestry.
Nevertheless, more than a year after the Mexican immigrant first sought naturalization, Maxey ruled in favor of Rodríguez on May 3, 1897, bestowing upon him the right of citizenship and “thereby legally affirming the civil rights of Texas Mexicans to vote.”
“Judge Maxey concluded that Rodríguez was not white,” Judge Rodriguez said. “But despite this conclusion, he held that Rodríguez was entitled to have his citizenship application granted.”
Maxey decided that Rodríguez met residency and character requirements to become a citizen, affirmed that citizens of Mexico were eligible for naturalization regardless of questions of race, and that immigrants could not be denied naturalization due to lack of education.
“(On) race and citizenship, Judge Maxey declared that the 14th amendment granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States regardless of color or race,” Judge Rodriguez told the audience. “Moreover, he noted, ‘We have freely received immigrants from all nations, and citizens of Mexico are eligible for American citizenship and may be individually naturalized by complying with the provisions of our laws.’”
Judge Rodriguez said he studies history to avoid collective failures from the past and reminded the audience how important it is to preserve history, because “tragically, history oftentimes repeats its uglier side.” Even after Rodríguez’s case, many obstacles still lay ahead for the Mexican American and immigrant community in the U.S.
Right before the plaque unveiling, GSA Regional Administrator Sylvia Hernandez explained the importance of the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse by briefly going over its history.
“Historic buildings speak not only to the history of GSA and the U.S. courts, but America’s history we all share,” Hernandez said. “And this case is part of that history.”
Hernandez added that she considers the commemoration Tuesday a highlight in her career.
“I’m proud to represent GSA as we honor Ricardo Rodríguez’s fight for citizenship and voting rights,” she said, “not only for himself but for Texans of Mexican descent for generations to come.”
Top image: Bexar County Historical Society members cover the plaque before its unveiling. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.